Redefining Expectations: An ASPA Conference Attendee Experience

How ASPA included innovative ideas, bottom-up strategies and sustainability

By Andrea Stover

Earlier this month, I traveled to Las Vegas, Nevada for the American Society of Public Administration (ASPA) Annual Conference to speak on “Community Mapping: Tools to visualize, empower, and build sustainable communities.” I decided to attend the entire 5-day event and volunteer in order to better network and bring down the cost of my registration fee.  I highly recommend students and emerging professionals; strapped for cash, consider volunteering options for admission to intriguing conferences.

ASPA is attended by a variety of practitioners and academics of the public administration field. Last May 2011, I received my Masters in Public Administration from Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco, CA. Although Presidio Graduate School is known for its sustainability focused MBA program, I was part of the first cohort of MPAs to have sustainable management completely integrated how we interpret the role of public administrators. At Presidio, we focus on integrated bottom-lines, environmental, economic and social justice, how to create a more fair, equitable, empowering, creative, and sustainable system.  A system designed to operate in harmony with our natural environment and one that values natural and social capital as part of economic wealth. At the ASPA conference, I was very curious to see how respected people in the field and in government were articulating these concepts.

This year’s ASPA Conference was titled: “Redefining Public Administration through Civic Engagement”. The conference was divided into different components and a variety of tracks or themes. I made it my mission to ask a question during every session I attended. Some I chose, others I attended to complete my volunteer obligations. I was impressed by the variety of perspectives at the conference and the response I got to my questions. Even when I stumbled unknowingly into rather conservative arenas, speakers responded positively to my pointed queries.

The discussion circle I led included just a few interested attendees. I was disappointed, but understood it was more of a scheduling problem than content issue, as I looked around the room and noticed other experts sitting at empty tables. This is the primary reason I have decided to give you a sample of my discussion circle right here.

Community Asset Mapping is a tool to visualize the skills, gifts, and resources in a small geographical area and use that information to achieve a common purpose. The tool requires grassroots networking, filling out capacity inventories, social media advertising, and online mapping tools. In addition to discussing how to use this tool, I focused on the various impacts. For instance, the impact on how leaders approach fundraising options, local economic development strategies, and prevention of urban gentrification, rural ghost towns, and energy-intensive suburbs.

McKnight and Kretzmann argue that the needs map is a prison because it isolates “labeled” people or “devastated” communities by surrounding them with services. Institutions like universities, foundations, governments, and the mass media all rely on measuring needs and deficiencies. They encourage community leaders to stress the needs and plight of their neighborhood to secure funding. This process creates burned-out leaders, as year after year they must downplay successes to continue receiving support.  Further, every time people must turn to an institution as a client, they do not use and maintain direct ties with the community.

Further, I explained: large powerful institutions lead to “weak communities that are fully served” whereas what we want are “strong communities with institutions that are servants.” (McKnight) But unfortunately since the 1990s we have not seen a decline in the size and power of institutions, rather we have seen business and institutions fuse and swell at the expense of communities. Privatized government translates into more dependency on outsiders, both in the local and national context, and creates a client/consumer society. This erodes the self-sufficiency of our communities and individuals. Sustainability agendas that heavily rely on government offering business incentives for job growth, while not empowering citizens directly, will never be as sustainable or effective. That is why we have Occupy movements, high unemployment, and massive debt on a personal, national, and global scale. We need institutions and government, but we need to flip the power structure for genuine democracy that is representative of the people.

I feel elated that ASPA accepted my “radical” perspective into the conference.  It demonstrates the willingness of ASPA volunteers to support innovative ideas and approaches to government.  The 2013 ASPA conference focuses on the role of “sustainability” in government. I hope practitioners and academics will remember the role of citizen engagement in “sustainability” agendas. Further, I hope the discussions we have at ASPA influence practice. Lastly, I hope by reading this article young professionals and students will feel empowered to write submissions and get out their ideas. We can never have too many people pushing a bottom-up strategy; in fact, it’s the only way these approaches will ever become fully realized in our society.


Kretzmann, John & McKnight, John, 1993, Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets, The Asset-Based Community Development Institute, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois.


Andrea Stover earned a Masters of Public Administration in 2011 from Presidio Graduate School. This degree compliments her Bachelor of Arts in Geography from the University of California at Berkeley. Both degrees emphasize how social, environmental, and economic conditions are constructed by human society and therefore within our power to transform into more just systems. Andrea is an international globe-trotter as well as someone who gets her hands dirty planting gardens, teaching kids, and developing local capacity through bottom-up strategies.


One thought on “Redefining Expectations: An ASPA Conference Attendee Experience

  1. Okay, I just typed a long message and then there was a submit error and when I went back, the message was gone. UGH. Anyway, I was saying that I’m very glad you got to go to ASPA (and yes, volunteering is a great way to go) and I’m sorry I didn’t get to be there to connect with you all. I think your topic is exciting, and not as radical as you may think; I’d love to read more about your research. There is an IAP2 group trying to rejuvenate itself here in Seattle; I’m anxious to see how many people are willing to get involved.


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